Road Worrier: Cost-conscious Wake transit planners get more bang from a bus

Judith Linder boards a Route 1 Capital Area Transit bus in front of Tarrymore Square shopping center on Capital Boulevard.
Judith Linder boards a Route 1 Capital Area Transit bus in front of Tarrymore Square shopping center on Capital Boulevard. 2013 News & Observer file photo

While Orange and Durham counties invest high hopes in a light-rail line that would run between UNC and Duke, old-fashioned buses are earning new respect as transit priorities in Wake County.

A 2011 Wake transit plan featured electric-powered light rail from Cary through downtown to North Raleigh, along with beefed-up bus service and diesel-locomotive commuter trains that would run at rush hour between Durham and Garner.

Light rail was always farthest off in Wake’s future, but it remained first in the hearts of many transit advocates.

Buses are getting more attention this year in a transit rethink guided by a new county manager with transit experience, Jim Hartmann, and Oregon transit consultant Jarrett Walker.

County residents will be asked at public meetings over the next month and in an online survey through March 5 to ponder the issues Walker frames in a 92-page “ Transit Choices” report released last week (online at County commissioners eventually are expected to draft a transit plan and ask voters in 2016 to consider paying for it with a half-cent sales tax.

Walker hasn’t reached the point of gauging our preferences for buses and trains. He is focusing first on limited tax dollars and how best to spend them, asking two main questions:

• Concentrate on building transit ridership with frequent service along busy urban corridors – or on steering buses into every far-flung rural and suburban neighborhood?

• Invest heavily in the capital-intensive infrastructure needed for a rail line or bus rapid transit line – or in putting more buses on the road?

When he laid out the questions that way for an advisory group of government and civic leaders at a daylong meeting last week, buses came out on top.

Walker carved the 70-member Wake County Transit Plan Advisory Committee into nine groups, asking each to draft a transit plan for a county that will grow from 1 million residents this year to an expected 1.2 million in 2025.

He gave them a budget to work with, based on expected receipts from that half-penny tax. A light-rail line would consume half of that budget, he said.

Each of the nine groups called for more bus service. There was an emphasis on running buses every 15 minutes on Hillsborough Street, Capital Boulevard from downtown to Wake Forest, New Bern Avenue, South Saunders Street, Glenwood Avenue and other major routes.

Five also provided for more expensive bus rapid transit service. And seven of the nine included money for the Durham-to-Garner commuter trains.

None of the nine groups recommended light rail in their transit plans for Wake County. They said Wake couldn’t afford it.

“It had nothing to do with whether you were – like me – a big proponent of light rail,” said Will Allen III of Raleigh, a Triangle Transit board member who took part in the session. “When faced with the challenge of having a finite budget in today’s world, we all decided we could get more bang for our buck by spending the money on other modes (of transportation).”

Walker’s “Transit Choices” report suggests that putting more frequent bus service on under-served corridors could make Capital Area Transit more productive, generating revenues from the increased ridership to help recover the added costs.

And 15-minute bus service could change the lives of transit-dependent folks, including those under 18 and over 65, whose share of the Wake population is growing, and low-income residents with less access to automobiles, whose numbers are highest in Southeast Raleigh.

“It will allow people a lot more freedom to schedule their lives and be involved in things when you have a bus system that is much more frequent in service,” said Corey D. Branch, a Raleigh Transit Authority board member who also took part in last week’s planning session. “With more frequency, all I have to do is go to a stop and jump on. I don’t have to map out a schedule and figure out what time does my bus come.”

Wake is more prosperous and growing faster than its neighbors to the west. But the cost-benefit argument isn’t as strong for a mostly suburban light-rail route here as it is for an Orange-Durham line anchored at both ends by big universities with thousands of hospital patients, students and employees.

Last week’s planning exercise could be an indication of how these questions will play out in Wake County over the coming year.

While none of the nine groups endorsed light rail, most of them agreed that the option should be included in March, when Walker presents three or four bus-and-rail scenarios for public consideration. Light rail is still in the running.